Bring Rain to the Desert

Law firms are deserts of positive feedback. At so many of our law firms no news is good news and critical feedback is the only kind going around.

As a lawyer coach I am a woman with a mission: To help make our law firms better places to work. One of the most powerful tools for accomplishing this is something called positive acknowledgement.

Positive acknowledgement is about giving the gift our attention by recognizing when someone has done something well. Positive acknowledgement works when you notice someone’s strengths or what they have accomplished and you tell them that you have noticed and why it’s important.

Whether you are a coach, partner, associate, administrator, or librarian, all of us in law firms have the opportunity to set off a simple but powerful shift in our law firm cultures with this one simple action.

Here’s my request for you — start bringing rain to the desert. Today when you finish reading this article make the determination to offer at least one piece of positive acknowledgement to someone you work with once a week. (To those of you who are already good at this my congratulations and please keep it up!)

Positive acknowledgement sounds like this:

Sally, I just wanted to tell you that I very much appreciated your comments and questions in the practice group meeting today. You helped to point out a very important issue that we could easily have missed.

It also sounds like this:

I see that you caught the error in the date that carried through from the last draft. That was a tough detail to spot. I sure appreciate your great eye for proofing!

And like this:

I want to let you know how much I appreciate your skills as a researcher. The documents you compiled for me on Monday covered all the angles and I was able to put together a comprehensive response for the client thanks to the work you did.

Positive acknowledgement is a vital leadership skill. For lawyers it can have a transformative impact on their work with support staff. One lawyer I know recently started to make an effort to offer her assistant positive acknowledgement and the result was an overnight change in the quality of the assistant’s work and productivity.

Wouldn’t we all like to receive such positive acknowledgement from time to time? If you start by finding opportunities to offer this kind of encouragement you just might find it coming back to you. I personally think it is best to watch for the meaningful opportunities rather than handing out compliments like Halloween candy. You would be surprised how many opportunities for this kind of feedback occur when you are watching for them.

It is also good for your profile at the firm and in the legal community. The legal grapevine moves swiftly. If you are a lawyer who is hard on staff and colleagues the word gets out fast. I recently heard a law firm administrator tell a group of associates how important it is that they carefully handle their relationships with support staff because a reputation for being hard to work with can follow you throughout your legal career.

One variation on this theme of positive acknowledgement is what Mark Goulston in his book Just Listen calls the “Power Thank You”:

Clearly there is nothing wrong with saying thanks when someone helps you out. In fact, that is usually the right thing to do. But if you stop there your communication is merely transactional (you did something nice for me, so I’ll say a polite thank you). It doesn’t touch the other person or strengthen the relationship between you.

That’s why if you’re deeply grateful to someone who’s done an exceptional favour for you, you need to express that emotion by going beyond the plain words “thank you” and instead offer a Power Thank You. When you to this, your words will generate strong feelings of gratitude, respect, and affinity in the other person.[1. Goulston (2010), p.181.]

Here’s an example of how a “Power Thank You” could be used in a law firm:

    Mark, a partner speaking to an associate: Mary, could I talk to you for a moment?

    Mary: Sure Mark. Do you have any questions about the work I did on the file last night?

    Mark: No, no questions. In fact I really just want to thank you for staying so late to research that question for me. The memo you prepared was excellent and gave me just the information I needed for the meeting with the client this morning. The client really appreciated the angle you uncovered and he is going to be able to move forward with the deal. I really appreciate the extra hours you put in so that I could go home and deal with my family emergency.

    Mary: Oh it was no problem, I was just happy to be able to help out.

    Mark: It’s good of you to say that but I would guess that it did in fact cause some problems for you. I know you had to call your husband so that he could leave work early to pick up Matthew at daycare. I also know you will have missed Matthew’s bed time and that today you must be really tired from pulling such a late night. The quality of the work you produced under such a time crunch was impressive as is your dedication.

    Mary: Thanks Mark. I have to admit I was worried I may have missed something important last night.

    Mark: You missed nothing! In fact you made me and this firm look really great to our client. I am very grateful for help and that you are a part of the team here.

You might be laughing now or shaking your head because this just doesn’t happen in law firms. That’s why it is our job is to make it happen. Next time someone goes the extra mile for you give them a “Power Thank You”. This is an incredibly effective leadership tool for strengthening your relationship with support staff, colleagues and others.

The “Power Thank You” is for special occasions when someone has gone the extra mile. I know a managing partner who instead of the “Power Thank You” would send flowers. Flowers are nice but they aren’t nearly as effective as some carefully thought out words that acknowledge the individuals contribution, the special effort it took, and the results that were achieved.

You might be wondering “what about the importance of critical feedback?” Getting useful information on what can be improved in our performance helps us to develop as professionals. The power and effectiveness of critical feedback is strengthened when positive feedback is also widely used in the work place. A workplace where only negative feedback is voiced can cause professionals and staff to become depressed, dejected, unmotivated and demoralized.

Have I got you convinced? The law firm culture shift starts today with just a few considered words of acknowledgement for a colleague. Start now and observe effects. Join me in bringing rain to the desert today.


  1. Thank you for your comments and I hope they do spark a move to a “kindlier, gentler” approach to work life in law practice. We deal with conflict and the pressure to produce every day and it is easy for it to spill over into our relationships in the office. I want to add that the power of a positive acknowledgment is increased if it is done in the presence of a third party. Private positive acknowledgment is good, but nothing beats having others hear such statements as they are being given.